The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative
REGENERATIVE QUALITIES OF THE BRONX COOPERATIVE DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE
Honors Community & Place / Empowered Participation / Wealth Viewed Holistically
Honors Community & Place / Empowered Participation / Wealth Viewed Holistically
The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative is a project MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is supporting with a collaborative of Bronx organization. The Colab works in partnership with communities at the intersection of shared wealth generation, urban sustainability, and democratic engagement.
Conversations in the Field
Listen to Nick Iuviene, Yorman Nunez, and Dan White talk about a new kind of economic development, from the grassroots up, happening in the Bronx today.
November 2013—Following the release of our Evergreen Cooperatives Field Guide story in the Spring of 2011, Capital Institute held a small convening in Greenwich, CT, to explore the possibilities of how the framework of this extraordinary group of worker-owned, anchor-institution-based cooperative businesses in inner city Cleveland could be scaled up, and how the Evergreen model could be adapted to suit the unique characteristics and requirements of other communities across the country. (See the video highlights of that event here.)
Among the attendees was Nick Iuviene, a Bronx community organizer who had made a close study of both Evergreen’s and Spain’s Mondragon cooperatives for his MIT masters thesis in urban planning.
We recently visited with Nick, and two of his colleagues, Yorman Nunez and Dan White. Together they work on a project called the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, a project that MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is supporting with a collaborative of Bronx organizations. CoLab, a center in the Department of Urban Planning and Studies at MIT, works in partnership with communities at the intersection of shared wealth generation, urban sustainability, and democratic engagement.
Harnessing the Essence and Assets of the Bronx
BCDI is guided by a deep intention to harness the essence of the people, resources, and place of the Bronx, and to enable the members of the community to co-create the borough's regeneration. Most encouraging is that those efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
The Bronx, rich in human, land, institutional, and commercial assets, is also among the poorest urban counties in the nation by many conventional measures, with some of the highest rates of obesity and asthma and the lowest per capita income. Its recent economic history has been characterized by residents struggling, for the most part unsuccessfully, to have their voices heard over those of powerful outside development interests. The Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment is illustrative. Community leaders had successfully defeated a number of massive ill-conceived redevelopment plans for the site over the past 15 years. They ultimately secured one of the most aggressive community benefits agreements in the country for the development of the largest ice-skating complex in the country. Nonetheless, questions linger as to whether the Armory will remain a community asset in its new incarnation or will end up causing unintended consequences.
Searching for New Approach to Economic Development
“We came out of the Kingsbridge experience trying to think through a different way to approach these questions of moving a place like the Bronx forward economically in a way that is really connected to the folks who lived there,” Nick explains. “We wanted to have the organizing focus be on broader development goals of what a local economy should be.” BCDI has been undertaking considerable work in laying the ground for this more holistic approach, building out a collaborative of organizations focusing on a regional development strategy to support economic democracy in the borough, with shared ownership at the core of that vision. The collaborative includes local business leaders, organized labor, anchor institutions, including Montefiore Medical Center, Fordham University, HOSTOS Community College, Bronx Community College, New York Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo, as well as local nonprofits including Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Mothers on the Move, the Point Community Development Corporation, Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Green Worker Cooperative, and the Consortium for Worker Education. The initiative has been supported by Congressman Jose Serrano’s office and BCDI plans to more actively engage elected officials in 2014.
A first of its kind study commissioned by BCDI, undertaken by a team that included an MIT economic development planning studio and a group of business analysts led by Jeffrey Hollender, takes a close look at the borough’s challenges and assets. “They were intentionally not trying to do a traditional needs assessment but to look at the resources the borough could harness internally,” Nick explains.
“Even though we are often cited as the poorest urban county by many measures we look at the potential, and it is easy to see that, once you look at the framework differently,” says Yorman, who grew up in the Bronx and has been a community leader since high school. “We are the poorest urban county not because we can’t produce wealth, but we haven’t built what we need to capture it. You spend your life enriching someone else, somewhere else.”
The Economic Democracy Training Program
Perhaps the most innovative of BCDI’s projects is the development of a twelve-module economic democracy training series that is building the strategic capacity of community leaders to both understand and critique traditional economic development models, introducing them to development strategies based on shared ownership. “This training series came at the request of the community organizations themselves saying to us, ‘if you want the community at the core of this vision you have to really create something that we can then use to develop capacity among our own leaders,'” Nick reports. The training program, which BCDI has begun testing with a number of community nonprofits, has had what Nick calls an “incredibly organic effect,” enabling organizations to challenge themselves in how they approach their work. . BCDI has been careful not to prescribe solutions through the training program, but to give participants the tools and knowledge base they need to construct their own models for redevelopment.
Yorman explains what he calls the “hunger” within the community for the opportunity to do this kind of creative strategizing: “At MIT you have an entire institution dedicated to building the space for you to be creative and explore and come to your own conclusions in your community. We don’t really have that [in the Bronx]; our spaces are where we fight back realities. These workshops are about creating the space where people have a framework to think about what is happening, and then to explore how could things be different, what are their aspirations, and do that through looking at tested strategies that have worked in other places in the country and around the world. It is a really generative space, something that is absolutely necessary when you are trying to do planning for sustainability.”
A Bronx Business Incubator
BCDI plans to build a business incubator to nurture and develop Bronx entrepreneurs. “The incubator will provide a space and opportunity for folks looking to start a business or expand one to be connected to resources they may need to service contracts with anchor institutions and others,” Dan White, BCDI’s communications and policy director, explains. “It will provide them with institutional support and financial resources so that we can circulate more dollars locally and keep the money flowing into the Bronx.”
Experimenting with Forms of Ownership
The incubator program design calls for the support of a mix of startup and expanding businesses. In the latter case that might mean helping a small group of women now operating out of home kitchens and selling to local stores to scale up to a more established food business, jointly owned, with employees and catering contracts with a hospital or university.
Although Nick maintains that BCDI is “agnostic” regarding what ownership forms these new businesses will take, “we do believe shared ownership is a powerful structural piece when it is tied to the right support systems and values,” he says. That said, cooperatives won’t be the only business type in the incubator, other forms of employee ownership as well as small sole proprietor businesses will be part of the mix. The goal will be to identify businesses in 5 broad categories—health, food, energy, manufacturing and education—that have the potential to build community wealth. The requirements will be that the business provide living wage levels and the potential for employees to build personal capital (financial and otherwise). The business should require only a reasonable amount of start up capital, and be aligned with other assets in the borough available for harnessing, including but not limited to, the procurement needs of anchor institutions. “We are trying very hard to recognize both the power and limitations of anchor-institution-based procurement business models,” Nick reports. “So our initiative is not an anchor institution writ large strategy; anchors will be a critical component of a broader objective. We want to look deeply at what is already happening locally so that we have a place for growth and development.”
Referencing Gar Alperovitz's book, What Then Must We Do, which celebrates the many projects incubating around the country aiming to build a new American economy of equitably shared wealth, Nick notes the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative will be about just this kind of experimentation with economic development frameworks. “We need experimentation and we need to ask challenging strategic questions, and we need to learn from each other,” he maintains. “We have blown up so many long-held assumptions, I don’t think any of us really has a corner on the wisdom at this point about how to go about building economic democracy."
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Reimagining communities using Legos as building blocks at a BCDI Economic Democracy Training Workshop